What Is A Hybrid & How Do They Work?

What Is A Hybrid & How Do They Work?

At the forefront of vehicle technology, hybrids are a new generation of cars and trucks that are set to revolutionise economical, green motoring. Although they've been around for a while now, many people are still unaware of what a hybrid is, the benefits (and disadvantages) which being a hybrid vehicle owner can bring, or what type of hybrid vehicles are available here in Australia. We aim to provide answers to all these questions and more, giving you the information you need on hybrid vehicle technology.

What is a hybrid car?

At its most basic, a hybrid car is a vehicle which uses more than one power source. Typically, a hybrid combines a traditional engine, powered by petrol or diesel, alongside an electric motor. The electric motor is charged from a battery that's separate to the battery needed to power the car's lights, starter mechanism and similar. The hybrid's battery may be recharged by the petrol engine, from regenerative braking, via a plug-in mechanism or through a combination of these options.

Hybrids are intended to reduce carbon emissions, by replacing "dirty" power obtained from fossil fuels with cleaner electric power. They are also highly efficient, frequently having an mpg in excess of similar uni-fuel models.

Many people are attracted to a hybrid by its green credentials and the opportunity to potentially drive further for less, with no negative impact on vehicle performance.

Types of hybrid cars

Initially, hybrid cars were available in two main permutations: series and parallel. The current market, however, contains vehicles that have far more complex hybrid set-ups, with series and parallel engine arrangements working together, often in conjunction with some plug-in technology. Read on to discover how series and parallel hybrids operate, as well as find out more about the various fusion hybrids that are out there.

Parallel hybrids

A parallel hybrid uses electrical power, fuel power, or both, to operate. Typically the electric power will be used when the car is travelling at low speeds, and when starting or stopping. This means that for city driving, particularly when traffic conditions are bad, the vehicle will be running on electric power. At higher speeds, the car will be powered by petrol or diesel.

In a parallel hybrid, the electric battery is recharged through regenerative braking: when the vehicle brakes, traditionally the kinetic (moving) energy of the car is transferred into heat as the brake pads slow the vehicle. In a hybrid vehicle, the kinetic energy used in braking is converted to electrical energy, rather than heat energy, providing a power source for the car's electric power supply.

Series Hybrids (also called range extender hybrids)

In contrast, a series hybrid is powered using electrical energy: the fossil fuel motor isn't ever used to directly power the car, only to create electricity to recharge the battery that stores the electricity needed to power the car. These allow what is basically an electric car to operate without the need to regularly use a charging point.

Charging point hybrids

Working in a very similar way to an electric car, hybrid charging point vehicles still have a fossil fuel power source that's used to recharge the battery if charge falls to a critical level and a recharging point isn't readily available.

If you operate a charging point hybrid solely for smaller journeys and recharge it regularly, it will be rare that the fuel power source is engaged. The advantage of having the fossil fuel power source "just in case" is that it enables a wider range than can be achieved by a similar spec vehicle powered by charging point electricity alone. Particularly if you live in a more remote area, where charging points are few and far between, and driving distance is a regular occurrence, a plug-in hybrid is more practical than a car that's totally powered by electricity.

Hybrid cars available in Australia

Toyota dominate the hybrid market here, with models such as the Corolla, the Camry and the RAV-4 dominating the list of most popular hybrid vehicles in Australia. Toyota focuses on reducing carbon emissions, cutting fuel costs and increasing engine efficiency to give more mpg. The engine in the most recent reincarnations of the Corolla, for example, is an intriguing series/parallel fusion, where the petrol engine works alongside the electric power source, simultaneously powering the car and recharging the electric battery.

If you're looking for a high-grade, stylish SUV that also scores highly on performance, the Mitsubishi Outlander is a hybrid vehicle that's selling extremely well. In addition to being able to seat seven and benefiting from a wide range of accessories, the hybrid Outlander is incredibly fuel-efficient: it's not often that a vehicle with a 2000kg towing capacity is able to cover 100/km and use a measly 1.7l of fuel. In comparison, the diesel version uses 6.2l/100km.

With an excellent reputation for high performance and excellent engineering, BMW hybrids are a popular choice. The relaunched BMW X5, for example, offers a stunning 87km range powered solely by electricity. In addition, BMW have worked hard to increase the power of the vehicle. The current reincarnation of the X5 has an output of up to 290kW - more than three times that of its predecessor. Expected to be on sale here shortly, this is an exciting example of how "green" and "performance" are not mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, Australian manufacturers don't feature prominently in domestic hybrid car sales. Holden did launch a hybrid (the Holden Vault) back in 2012, but it was withdrawn shortly after launch, due to disappointing sales.

The new networks of charging stations planned in NSW and Western Australia, in addition to Queensland's "super highway" (2000km of road that's equipped with charging points between Coolangatta and Cairns) may help more Australians decide that a hybrid vehicle is the best choice.

Although some makes and models sell better than others, the majority of major manufacturers now supply hybrid vehicles to the Australian market. In addition to Toyota, Mitsubishi, BMW and Lexus, Hyundai, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Honda all offer hybrid models.

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